WHAT STARTED as a routine hike with three friends ended with a most unexpected discovery.
Taking a break from his classes at Fredonia State College one Saturday last October, Michael DiDomenico and his companions drove to a wooded area about five miles away in Arkwright. As they hiked in a ravine formed by the Canadaway Gulf, the 20-year-old biology student caught sight of a tree at the edge of a steep slope.
"I remember looking at the tree and thinking, 'This isn't right,' " recalls DiDomenico, who lives in Elma. But the closer he got and the more he investigated, the more convinced he became that he was looking at an American chestnut tree.
And that is a very rare sight.
This species of tree once dominated the American woodland from Maine to Georgia. It was prized for its superior wood and its ability to grow to near maturity in a relatively short time.
It was also a wonderful shade tree and a rich source of nuts for deer, birds, squirrels and rodents, according to Herbert F. Darling Jr., president of the New York State chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
But that was before 1904, when Chinese chestnut trees were introduced via New York City. Those imports brought the parasitic fungus Cryphonectria parasitica -- commonly called "the blight." And once that blight took hold, it effectively eradicated the American chestnut tree.
What makes DiDomenico's discovery unusual is that the tree is a healthy specimen with no sign of blight.
The tree is between 30 and 40 feet high and two feet in circumference, making DiDomenico think that it's about 20 years old. Most American chestnuts are diseased by the time they reach the reproducing age of 7 to 10 years.
"When the trees get into the 10- or 12-inch-diameter range, that's when trouble starts," said Darling. "They can go 'bang' in three to five years. That's all it takes once it gets the blight."
To confirm that it's an American chestnut, DiDomenico put one of its frilly, long-spined burs and a sawtoothed leaf in his backpack to show Melinda S. LaBranche, his biology teacher at Fredonia.
But before she saw the definite proof, "I didn't believe him," she said.
Now she does.
And she has approved his proposal for an independent research project to document the surrounding forest and to observe the tree as it goes through its seasonal phases and growth.
DiDomenico says many people
confuse the tree with the commonly found horse chestnut, also called the buckeye -- the one that produces chestnuts as ammunition for childhood wars.
But he knew something of the species and its proud history, having heard about it in a botany class and in a conversation he had with his father, Joseph DiDomenico, president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, about the near-disappearance of the species.
The ultimate goal of the American Chestnut Foundation is to develop a blight-free variety to reforest the woods where it once reigned, said Darling.
"It was a major loss," he said. "The U.S. government tried from 1935 to 1950 to do something and they gave up. Now, with genetic engineering, I think that's the way it's going to get fixed."
Efforts to develop a blight-resistant variety have been unsuccessful. The American Chestnut Foundation is carrying out an experiment in Zoar Valley with hundreds of seedlings.
"The hope is that the more trees you plant, the better is the possibility of genetic differentiation," DiDomenico said. "You are trying for a blight-resistant gene."
DiDomenico has visited the tree at least a dozen times and is compiling a field book with drawings and comments on what he has found.
He thinks this tree has remained untouched by the blight because it is relatively isolated and the spores -- carried by the wind, birds or insects -- may not have reached it.
"I have a suspicion that the tree may have enough of a buffer of woodlands that it's been able to duck it," he said.
For the next year he will take the now-familiar one-hour hike, past a waterfall and up a steep incline, to check on the health of the tree and add whatever knowledge he gains to this significant piece of natural history.